consumer's new favorite buzzword
From the outset of the pandemic, the word “community” has become more loaded than ever. People naturally seek connections with others, and it’s been argued that the human need for community could be as strong as the need for food and water. It’s no surprise that faced with social isolation, people have flocked to other methods to gather — Slack groups, Clubhouse rooms, and Zoom versions of IRL events have replaced in-person communities in the past year. Whether digital or physical, communities represent a strong opportunity for consumer brands to find and retain high-quality customers.
From a consumer psychology standpoint, communities are a logical starting point for building a brand from the ground up. The combination of collective interests and potential for high information transfer between members presents a unique opportunity for startups. Established and budding consumer brands alike can utilize communities to launch and grow.
In 2010, Emily Weiss left her job in print media at Condè Nast to start a beauty blog called Into The Gloss, or ITG. Weiss started out by posting the makeup and skincare routines of regular women — instead of models or celebrities. This content style was a dramatic change from her previous work. Instead of flashy editorial shoots, featuring products a regular person could never dream of being able to afford, Weiss took photos of her interviewee’s bathroom counters, quick morning looks, and drugstore products. Women all over the country quickly fell in love with this relatable, relevant content, and ITG soon amassed total readership in the millions within a few years.
Traditional routes for blog monetization a few years ago may have included selling ad spots on the website, sponsored content, or even becoming part of a larger media conglomerate. Weiss, however, picked a different route — starting a product line. In October 2014, after building up a community of women around the topics of skincare and beauty, Glossier was born. In just 6 years, the company grew from being just a handful of experimental products, to a venture-backed unicorn worth $1.2B. Part of the company’s fast growth has to do with the fact that Weiss spent years building a community of beauty and skincare lovers through ITG, who ended up being the very first cohort of customers for Glossier.
In other words, the community turned into the consumers. Glossier had customers to sell to, who would be interested in that type of product line, right at launch, instead of trying to acquire early adopter customers after the products were already out.
In the case of Glossier, there were several strategic elements to community-building that positioned the company to have paying customers at product launch. The most important of these was the precise profile of an ITG community member. Younger women, in the 18–29 age demographic, were part of the first generation to widely adopt the Internet as a reliable source of beauty and skincare advice. While these women may have grown up reading print magazines like Teen Vogue, once they got their own spending power and sources of discretionary income, digital publications like ITG had taken over in terms of relevance and accessibility.
This unifying characteristic of the ITG community — a willingness to take advice from women online — made them perfect customers for Glossier. As a digitally native brand, with little physical retail presence, the company can’t provide consumers the same try-on shopping experience that mainstream beauty brands can at the same price point. For example, the fan-favorite Cloud Paint cream blush is $18, which is in the same price range as equivalent products from brands like Fenty Beauty and Clinique. The latter are sold in stores like Sephora and Macy’s, where products can be tried on, sometimes even with the help of in-store makeup artists. Makeup in this price range is certainly not comparable to cheaper drugstore brands, and often has a moderate decision making process involved before purchase.
Ultimately, the ITG community, Glossier’s first customers, already had the behavior of trusting beauty and skincare information from the internet to power purchasing decisions. This is a critical principle to building communities who can convert to customers — assembling people with characteristics that point towards early adoption, not just people loosely interested in the same topic.
Validating the success of Glossier’s content-driven community model is the founding story of FabFitFun. The company ran a generalist lifestyle newsletter for women in 2013, and were able to launch their very first “box” product, filled with cute products with no particular focus on category, to their subscribers soon after. To this day, FabFitFun runs media operations, publishing a handful of pieces a day still.
However, brands don’t need to always do the heavy lifting of creating a community themselves — identifying the right one, and selling well to them, is an easier, equally effective approach.
My first season of high school swimming, all of my team’s practice swimsuits looked the same — thick, unflattering straps, cuts that left weird tan lines, and no color choices beyond dark, solid hues. These swimsuits were hideous, but we had no other options; Speedo, Nike, and TYR dominated the market and were the only things available in Michigan sports stores. Later in high school, my teammates started wearing colorful, comfortably-cut training suits which looked nothing like the ones I was used to. I had never seen floral print or neon on the pool deck before.
I eventually found out my teammates were getting these swimsuits at Jolyntrunk shows, hosted at championship meets and at their club team practices. Jolyn is a direct-to-consumer swimwear brand specializing in competitive swimwear; they make suits that last hundreds of practices, have designs that stay put in the water, and even introduced a competition line that’s approved by the international governing body of water sports.
The trunk shows are a unique part of Jolyn’s strategy. Even though swim teams are high-visibility product placement already, selling on-site is an unparalleled opportunity to reach more customers in a community with a few already. The trunk show involves a Jolyn rep, often an aquatic athlete themselves, bringing inventory to a competition or practice (likely attended by anywhere from fifty to several hundred potential customers) to sell. A small percentage of proceeds also go back to the team hosting the trunk show, which further incentivizes teams to host them.
The success of the trunk show model allowed Jolyn to also expand into bulk orders, making official, mandatory-to-purchase competition swimwear for entire teams. In 2019, my high school team started getting their team swimsuits exclusively from Jolyn, breaking a decades-long tradition of purchasing from local specialty retailers like this one. Jolyn is an example of a brand successfully disrupting by picking the right community to put 100% of its marketing and sales efforts into. Jolyn hasn’t had to look outside of selling to athletes and entire teams; there has been no product line expansion outside of looks-first, performance-first swimwear and athletic apparel.
Brands that can penetrate a single community well with a limited product line seem to rarely expand their offerings, either — regardless of the new communities they reach with their product. In 2013, professor Craig Hawkercame up with a miraculous chemical formula in a SoCal garage, along with one of his former students. He gave this to celebrity hairstylist Tracey Cunningham, who had access to a tight-knit community of high-profile clientele, and the rest was history. Olaplex has a small product offering of bond-renewing hair products, both sold directly to consumers for at-home use and to a (yet another) community of hairstylists.
A group of celebrities doesn’t exactly come to mind when one envisions a community, but the key to success with Olaplex was the highly-specific, celebrities-only use case it became applicable for. High-profile models and actresses often went through lots of very rapid color treatments and dye jobs, which leaves most hair dry, dull, and heavily damaged. Olaplex’s bond maintenance products came to the rescue in this case, healing hair in between treatments and effectively hiding the effects of constant hair color changes for these celebrities. This is a problem that normal people don’t have, and celebrities certainly talk amongst themselves about their personal care routines. Olaplex’s launch model utilized the power of a community with a very specific problem, selected the high-touch opportunity of celebrity stylists to market the product, and only then did the company focus on selling to mid-range and boutique stylists, which cater to the general population of clients — people who get their hair dyed regularly, but infrequently.
Glossier, Jolyn, and Olaplex are all examples of brands which built companies from communities as a starting point, but an equally important practice is maintaining a brand’s community as a double-edged means of retention and new customer acquisition.
The new mom market is a massive, community-centric group of consumers. The market value is around $46B, and new moms control $2.4T of spending power in their households as well. The motivations behind these women coming together as a community stem from a need for accurate, trustworthy information on all things about their baby. People they’d otherwise take advice from, such as older family members, may give obsolete recommendations, especially when it comes to products. Medical providers can only go so far as well when it comes to advice — a doctor can advise on a baby’s diet, sleeping aids, or teething products, but won’t speak to stylish baby clothing or a moms-only talent marketplace. The most comprehensive, trustworthy source of information becomes other new moms in the same boat, whether through personal relationships, or digital/physical organized communities.
Monica + Andy is a children’s clothing line created “in the delivery room”. The brand’s unique product differentiators include soft fabrics and pre-created looks, but beyond that, the company maintains a community as part of their business model. The m+a edit is a blog covering topics almost exclusively unrelated to children’s clothing for new moms — buying the right stroller, dealing with the pandemic and new kids, interviews with women in leadership positions, and more. This type of content strategy is unique among consumer brands, and is more similar to the Glossier strategy mentioned previously; rather than writing content exclusively as a vehicle for direct advertising (such as how food and beverage brands will post recipes including their products), it’s content aimed at keeping customers on the site.
Another unique part of the Monica + Andy strategy is having paid events for their community members. Some recent ones include a “tummy time” class for babies led by a pediatric physical therapist, an info-session about the COVID-19 vaccine and pregnancy with gynecologists and physicians, and a Valentine’s day waffle recipe demo by a health food brand. While many consumer startups have free events open to the public, choosing to put a ticket price and attendance limit on events naturally leads to them being higher quality. Customers are more likely to show up, the ticket revenue allows for more interesting guests and hosts to be brought in, and it adds a level of exclusivity which free-for-all events can’t have. Beyond hosting events, the brand also has a wealth of resources and options to help out moms with hosting their own virtual/IRL baby showers and birthday parties, including being there at the event to coordinate and entertain.
High-quality, exclusive events seem to be a key to keeping a customer community engaged. Fitness studios often follow this model as well as a means of getting their local clientele to bond as a community outside of regular classes. SoulCycle, for example, hosts charity rides as a means of fundraising for organizations through paid special classes, and CorePower Yoga will often host retreats and off-site events for its community members as well. What all these events have in common is that they’ve got a price tag and are open to members only, and cultivating this exclusivity is a way to get a fitness studio community to bond.
Whether digital or in-person, communities are a phenomenal vehicle for brands to acquire new customers en masse, or keep the ones they already have engaged. Community builders hoping to one day convert their groups into customers should focus on cultivating the traits of a promising one — high visibility between members, developing content relevant to the group, identifying ultra-specific pain points, and more.